Reading Ads

The magazine Hot List, which debuts today, was launched 31 years ago in Adweek by its editor, Clay Felker.

That was an era that my former colleague at New York, John Homans, calls the late renaissance of the magazine business. Not only was Manhattan the magazine capital of the world, but magazines were the most influential medium in the city. Editors were the barons of the day; publishers had the most salubrious jobs in town. What’s more, ad guys wanted to make magazine ads. Indeed, ad guys wanted to be in the magazine business.

There were so many magazines—one-title companies dotted Midtown. I have a diary from a day in the late ’70s that includes meetings with Nora Ephron at Esquire, Clay Felker at New York, William Shawn at The New Yorker, and Jon Larsen at New Times, the magazine where a generation of us (Frank Rich, Peter Kaplan, Ron Rosenbaum) began our careers.

Alas, and then we grew up.

There are many theories about the forces that undermined the business—even before the Internet came along—discount subs, which ruined a once strong revenue stream; conglomeration, which took the soul of the product; Tina Brown, who jacked up the cost of making the product; the Macintosh, which made every magazine look like every other; and the terrible recession of 1991.

And then the Internet came along.

And then the Great Recession. (And then Condé Nast called in McKinsey and instituted an across-the-board 25 percent budget cut, marking the end of the Condé Nast era in New York.)

But my theory is that copywriters and art directors fell out of love with magazines.

Television advertising was once lowbrow—jingles and irritating repetition—and national magazine advertising highbrow, or at least high craft: compressed language, compelling image, precise message, tailored information. Witty, sexy, informative. That perfect marriage of image and word.

Magazines were not only supported by the desire of admen to show off their stuff (as well as to sell their products), but elevated by the sheer quality of the ads.

I have a year’s worth of Playboy’s from 1971 beside my bed—and I read them for the ads.

What happened here is, of course, the ever escalating power and budgets of television; the triumph of moving picture directors over copywriters and art directors; the visualization of everything; the loss of cigarette advertising, whose terrific profitability anchored print departments (subsiding large creative staffs); and, perhaps, a change in the DNA of magazines themselves.

A year or so before he died, Jay Chiat, who did as much as anyone to make television the coolest advertising medium, was baiting me about the hopelessness of magazines. He argued that the problem with magazine people is that they all really wanted to be movie and television people and so had turned magazines into a swamp of images, which made it impossible to have an ad stand out. We’d out-huckstered the hucksters.

And then the Internet—where we cool boys went, creating a vastly deeper swamp of image and distraction.

Which, in the countercyclical ways of media, where everything old is eventually new, could be an opportunity for magazines and their traditional turn-the-page proscenium. In the world of failing advertising productivity and ever-falling CPMs, there is no larger issue than how to make display ads work again: how to create a compelling interactive relationship between consumer and ad.

How about getting people to read them?